Retired forester cultivates minds of preschoolers

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Ray Major of Ferdinand, a retired forester and tree farmer, discusses acorns during a lesson about planting trees from seeds at the Little Spruce Nature School at Camp Carnes in Jasper on Thursday.


JASPER — Ray Major of Ferdinand carefully sliced into the shells and plucked out the yellow chestnuts. One by one, children who encircled the retired forester bit into the bitter and crunchy seeds.

“They’re yummy!” one exclaimed.

“I want to eat another one!” chimed a peer.

Four-year-olds Jack Knies and Ryan Kelly thought they tasted like chocolate berries.

The earthy snack time was part of a hands-on planting project Major led at the Little Spruce Nature School in Jasper on Thursday morning. Major’s goal for the nine children in the school’s pre-K class — which meets at Camp Carnes on Jasper-Dubois Road — was for them to learn how mighty trees grow from tiny seeds.

Ray Major of Ferdinand, a retired forester and tree farmer, cuts up Chinese chestnuts for the preschoolers to sample at the Little Spruce Nature School at Camp Carnes in Jasper on Thursday.

“Environmentalist agendas or political agendas, or other such things aside,” he said. “Simply that trees grow from seeds. And when it’s time to grow trees or when they want to grow trees, they’re able to do it.”

The kids started their day with a hike before mixing acorns, red bud leaves, and pawpaw seedlings into a long, dirt-filled bucket. They used their little fingers to press the hard nuts into the top of the soft soil to bury them; scattered red bud leaves across the surface; and later shoveled their blend of forest life into a seedling tray.

“Did you know these seeds are alive?” Major asked as the pint-sized planters looked at him with wide eyes. “They have little baby trees that are growing right inside them. And they will grow.”

The Little Spruce students are no strangers to the great outdoors. Their classroom is the forest, and their four-hour days are spent trekking through the woods, feeding birds, sharing stories and singing songs, and playing nature-based games or making nature-based art.

“We’re immersed in it,” said teacher and program director Carrie Holdsworth. “We’re actually in nature every day. It’s not just reading a book, or listening to somebody tell them something. They’re actually doing it.”

Little Spruce Nature School preschoolers put acorns in water to see if they float, a test of whether they're alive or worm-eaten, during a lesson led by Ray Major of Ferdinand at Camp Carnes in Jasper on Thursday.

She explained that guest teachers visit her class once a month. But none are like Major, who later spoke passionately about reforesting the world. He sported a red Hawaiian shirt, a handlebar mustache and a wide smile as he cultivated the minds of the children in attendance.

“I think everybody needs to know that we need our trees, and that’s where they come from,” Holdsworth said of why the exercise can be beneficial for all children. “Not from a nursery. They see their parents go out to a nursery and buy a tree in a pot — they don’t even understand that the beginning, the genesis of everything, is the seeds.”

Information about seed planting and more can be found on Major’s Facebook page, Trees from Seed.

“In light of the way the world’s going, this is an important thing,” Major said after his lesson ended. “This is a thing of immediate importance to even old people like me.”

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